Oregon’s transportation crisis ‘at a tipping point’

Photo credit: Jason Kaplan

The state’s underinvestment in transportation is at a crisis point that will force the hand of the public and private sector to consider alternative funding sources, said panelists at an Oregon Business Hot Topics, Cool Talks discussion this morning.

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Oregon’s roads and bridges are in such serious disrepair that maintenance costs are escalating. Under current funding arrangements, it would take the Oregon Department of Transportation 900 years to replace all the state’s bridges, said Rian Windsheimer, Region I manager at the department.

The Oregon legislature has made a transportation funding package a priority this year. But public funding will not be enough to solve the crisis. The general consensus is that the private sector needs to be part of the transportation financing solution.

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Here are some of the highlights of today’s panel discussion:

— Panelists agreed it is critical to get across to the public the idea that roads should be treated as a utility, which users pay for like electricity and water. This notion is “inevitable’ in Oregon, said Kate Drennan, senior transportation planner for CH2M, an engineering consulting firm. “There is rate structure stability with power and gas, it is something we need for transportation,” said Drennan.

Oregon has just started discussions about charging drivers for road use. The Oregon Department of Transportation plans to seek federal funding to put tolls on interstate highways. ODOT is also piloting a mileage based road user fee project called OreGo that could supplement or replace declining gas tax revenues.

— Businesses need to be “good storytellers” at describing the importance of transportation upgrades to secure funding for projects, said Mike Baker, vice president at engineering firm David Evans and Associates. Baker cited the bond funding Portland Public Schools secured to upgrade school buildings as an example of an how to tell a compelling story for infrastructure upgrades.

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— Funding for public transit is a critical part of the transportation solution. Increasing numbers of people, particularly millennials, are using public transportation and car sharing options rather than owning their own car. And it is not just the young generation that is using public transit more.

The state’s growing senior population will also need public transportation options. “It is really important to consider how to make the city work for young people that don’t want to get driving licenses, as well as older people,” said Drennan.Unknown

Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read pointed out that Oregon is constrained on how much it can spend on public transit given that the state’s gas tax, the main source of funding for road repair, cannot be used for non-highway purposes.

“Our big challenge is acknowledging the constitutional challenges and finding solutions to that,” said Read.

— Technology is a game changer in solving transportation issues. Drennan pointed to trucking automation, whereby self-driving trucks move along roads in platoons, as a technological advance that can improve traffic safety. Drennan also said young people are more interested in smart phones than driving and that these demographic and technology trends will drive new transportation solutions.

These include apps that send push notifications to smart phones telling users the location of heavily congested roads. People can then make decisions about how to avoid traffic hot spots.

Oregon Business editor Linda Baker moderated the panel discussion.